MANILA, Philippines (AP) – President Rodrigo Duterte and his top security officials planned yesterday to visit a Catholic cathedral in the southern Philippines where suspected militants set off bombs that killed at least 20 people and wounded more than 100.
The first blast sent people, some of them wounded, fleeing through the church’s main door. Army troops and police were rushing inside when the second bomb exploded a minute later.
The explosions scattered wooden pews inside the main hall, blasted out window glass panels and hurled human remains and debris across a town square fronting the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, witnesses said.
The attack occurred in the Sulu provincial capital on Jolo island, where Abu Sayyaf militants have carried out years of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings and have aligned themselves with the Islamic State (IS) group, which claimed responsibility for the attack.
Duterte met with some of the survivors and held a security meeting with military and police officials yesterday. Police have put forces around the country on heightened alert to prevent similar attacks.
“We will pursue to the ends of the earth the ruthless perpetrators behind this dastardly crime until every killer is brought to justice and put behind bars. The law will give them no mercy,” the President’s office said earlier.
The bombings came nearly a week after the minority in the nation endorsed a new autonomous region in the southern Philippines in hopes of ending nearly five decades of a separatist rebellion that has left 150,000 people dead.
Although most areas approved the autonomy deal, voters in Sulu province, where Jolo is located, rejected it. The province is home to a rival rebel faction that’s opposed to the deal as well as smaller militant cells that are not part of any peace process.
A top Philippine government official told The Associated Press that an Abu Sayyaf Commander Hatib Sawadjaan is one of the main suspects. At least four of Sawadjaan’s men were filmed by security cameras near the bombed area, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation.
Sawadjaan is based in the jungles of Patikul town, near Jolo, and has been blamed for kidnappings for ransom and beheadings of hostages, including two Canadian men, in recent years. Sawadjaan’s faction has aired ransom-demanding videos that used IS-styled black flags as backdrops.